‘The Engine’ is MIT’s incubator for tech and science companies straight out of the lab

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MIT is getting into the incubator business in a big way with “The Engine,” a major fund and accelerator space aimed at nurturing early-stage companies solving big, difficult problems in tech and science. After The Engine raises its targeted $150 million fund, up to 60 companies at a time will benefit from the university’s equipment, services and considerable pool of expertise.

While many details are yet to come, it’s clear this is serious business for the Boston-area mega-school. The language of the announcement indicates that establishing the city as a hub for commercialized innovation is a major secondary goal.

A familiar final paragraph in many a story on our own front page about an amazing new technology reads along the lines of: “It’s not clear when or how the technology will be commercialized or manufactured.”

How exactly do you put your swarming robots, soft robotic muscles or brain-computer interfaces into the hands of consumers or — how do you even keep working on them at all once your grant money runs dry?

The Engine takes dead aim at the valley of death between the lab and the market. There won’t be cohorts, but companies will come in for 6-, 9- or 12-month periods to receive a variety of help. MIT’s resources are many and various, of course, and companies will have access to lab spaces, specialized equipment and likely things like online staging and supercomputing time, as well. Administrative support for things like business management, patents, taxes and so on will also be provided.

In fact, these resources are so many and various that MIT is setting up an entire online ecosystem for providing, requesting, renting and otherwise managing the many clean rooms, laser sintering machines and gene sequencers (plus, presumably, the grad students to operate them). It’ll be called the Engine Room (an extended metaphor is announced) and although it doesn’t say exactly this, it almost certainly has designs on becoming an international tech and science resource-sharing platform.

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But the average startup comprising a handful of engineers and a great idea doesn’t just need micropipettes, it needs money, with which one can buy many micropipettes. And coffee.

To that end, the MIT announcement is less than specific. An investment arm of The Engine will oversee financial contribution, which, while terms will surely differ between companies, will be in the form of what they describe as patient capital. Here’s how MIT explains it:

The Engine venture funds will demand less equity in startups than is typical, allowing founders to maintain more control over their companies. The Engine is also actively exploring avenues to support nonprofit startups.

I’ve asked for specifics and will update this post if I hear back. I’ve also asked how The Engine will work with existing university commercialization and IP infrastructure — that can be very tricky.

As for the $150 million with which it plans to fund this endeavor, details are forthcoming there, as well. MIT itself is chipping in $25 million, with the rest to come, hopefully soon. (Another thing I’ve asked about — are they looking for private investment? Public? Recurring? Foundation-like?)

In a letter to the MIT community, the university’s president L. Rafael Reif praises the ambition of the idea, but also notes that it will be operationally independent; in an op-ed for the Boston Globe, he sells the idea to the city at large. A community event for questions and concerns will be held on November 30th.

Applications aren’t open yet and there’s no word on when they will be. You don’t need to have anything to do with MIT to apply to the program, but you’ll probably want to be in the greater Boston area, since that’s where all the great stuff is. Get in contact and you’ll hear more when there’s more to hear.